NWO chair Levi: ‘Where will we find all the researchers to fill those permanent positions?’

The Dutch Research Council (NWO) wants to give scientists a lot more opportunities to get a grant. But whether or not the plan will be a success remains to be seen, says NWO chair Marcel Levi. After all, nobody knows how things will go with the new working capital for researchers.

Marcel Levi says he is not a particular fan of visions and missions. But he feels that you need to take a close look at your ambitions once in a while. On Wednesday afternoon he handed over a new NWO strategy to Minister of Education Robbert Dijkgraaf.

So the message of the plan is something like, ‘we are still doing our work, but better’?

‘That’s a fair summary. We’re not suddenly going to do totally different things than in the last few years. But things are really going to get more ambitious. For example, we want 25 percent of the grant applications in open competition and under the Talent programme to be accepted. That’s a lot. In some programmes we are now closer to 10 percent.’

But that also depends on the number of applicants.

‘We are getting extra funds and can give out more grants, but that doesn’t apply to all the programmes. The Dutch Research Council can’t do it all on its own. We have to do it in partnership with universities and other stakeholders.’

The minister is giving the universities 300 million euros for starting grants and incentive grants. Will that help to relieve the pressure on the Dutch Research Council?

‘We don’t know yet, do we? Maybe those lecturers with a starting grant will appoint a PhD student or postdoc researcher, who will in turn make an application to the Dutch Research Council. And then there are the sector plans, worth an additional 200 million euros per year: the institutions will need to recruit people for those, and maybe those people will also submit an application. Nothing is clear yet, so we need to monitor the situation carefully.’

But surely people who have just received a grant shouldn’t come knocking at NWO’s door as well?

‘The minister’s letter states very deliberately that you’re not supposed to apply for an NWO grant if you already have a starting grant. But it hasn’t been thought through very well. Maybe we need to provide more customised solutions and not put up any barriers.’

What kind of customised solutions?

‘Some NWO grants are bigger than a starting grant. Are they going to turn down that starting grant because they would rather try to get a Vidi? There are also departments that always give you your own PhD student or postdoc researcher if you have a permanent contract. So can you take on two if you have a starting grant? Or does everything remain the same and will it now be called a starting grant? A lot of adjustments still have to be made to the plan. I don’t want to say that it was done in a hurry, but you can see that they were under time pressure. I also wonder where they will find all the researchers to fill those permanent positions. There are currently a lot of postdoc researchers on temporary contracts who have proved themselves three times already, so the first cohort will be easy. But after that?’

You want to make the process of applying for an NWO grant simpler and faster. How?

‘Some procedures are already working smoothly, others are not. We need to examine the whole process closely. But some questions relate to topics such as the diversity policy and data management: why do individual researchers have to answer those themselves? We’re going to ask the institutions about that. There are also questions about the implementation of the research results. In fact, those questions are relevant only if you actually get the funding, so we will put them only to people who have been awarded a grant.’

And how can things be done more quickly?

‘As an example, we are currently asking international reviewers whether they could look at a research proposal within six weeks. But you know how it is. The proposal stays on their desk for five weeks and they look at it only in the final week. It’s better to say, ‘A research proposal will be coming your way in four weeks’ time; could you take a look at it straight away?’ It actually doesn’t take them any more time, but it does help expedite our procedure. Those are the kinds of measures we’ll be taking.’

You also want to conduct a survey on research funding, in other words on your own work. What kind of questions are pertinent?

‘We work with pre-proposals, for example. Is that going well? The principle is that researchers first hand in a brief one-page proposal for the initial screening and only subsequently submit a detailed application. While this does save time, there has also been criticism. How is it possible for a committee to assess the depth of a research proposal on the basis of such a short text? And sometimes a brief application like that gets through with flying colours, while the detailed application is disappointing. That’s a shame, of course. And maybe the opposite also happens at times. Are we rejecting applications that might be very good when they are fleshed out? Look, we’re not going to spend millions on this, but it’s worthwhile examining.’

Have you made a baseline measurement so you can check later whether the new policy is having an effect?

‘No, not yet. We already have a lot of data – about turnaround times and acceptance percentages for instance – but I would also like to know how much time a committee member spends on proposals. They all do it in their normal working hours, and if they then have less time for their own research they have to catch up in the evening or at weekends. We want to get more insight into that.’

NWO also wants to be more sustainable.

‘Yes, who doesn’t? That’s something we can do at our own nine national research institutes in particular. We can look at how much energy we use there and whether our staff actually need to fly across the world.’

But you aren’t going to set any sustainability requirements for NWO funding applications?

‘I don’t want any more hoops that researchers have to jump through. As far as I’m concerned this is a matter for the personnel policy of the knowledge institutions. Just because we hold the purse strings doesn’t mean we have the right to simply impose additional requirements.’

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